Wednesday, June 11, 2014

College Football and Moral Education

Lately I've been pondering the significance of college sports.  In the United States, nearly every college or university devotes significant resources to athletic facilities, coaches, and teams.  It's so prevalent, we don't think of how peculiar it is that we have so closely united academics and athletics.  Plenty of theorists of education have suggested that there is a natural connection between playfully educating the body and educating the mind, but it is not always obvious that there's a natural link between having a basketball team and having a strong math department, for instance.

Whenever I read an article in the local paper about a local talented high school athlete who has signed with a college sports team, I wonder why we don't report that a local talented debater, chess expert, or math student just made it into Harvard or the University of Chicago on the basis of her talent. It makes me wonder: Do we not care about intellectual ability as much we care about physical prowess?


In 1908 Harvard Philosophy professor Josiah Royce published an essay entitled "Football and Ideals."  The essay is over a century old, but the topic and the ideas sound like they could have been written yesterday.  Royce writes, "Football is at present a great social force in our country.  It has long been so.  Apparently it is destined to remain so."  So far, this is correct.

In Royce's time football was still largely a college sport.  (The NFL was founded twelve years later.) Just as college sports in the United States do today, it drew big crowds.  Just as in our time, football had its scandals: severe injuries among players; hooliganism among the crowds; and unethical behavior among players off the field and among fans and gamblers.

And just as in our time, supporters of the sport claimed that football did more social good than harm.

In his essay, Royce takes all of this seriously.  Any social force this great deserves to be examined, Royce says, in order to determine what social goods it provides, and at what cost.  Only a few play, but all of us are affected by the sport.  He puts it like this:

"Football must be estimated as to its general relations to the welfare of society, just as Standard Oil, or just as the railway management which results in killing a larger proportion of railway passengers in our country than in other countries, must be estimated; it must be judged by non-experts, precisely in so far as it influences their great common social concerns."
Royce was in one sense a non-expert inasmuch as he was a professor, not a college athlete; but in another sense he was an expert because he had devoted much of his research to this question of ethics and the common good. Royce held that the aim of our moral lives is the fostering of loyalty, and that we can see this in a range of social institutions.  He wasn't arguing that we should aim for small and local loyalties, though, but for loyalties that, though they begin and are expressed locally, develop into a broad agape-like loyalty that includes all people.

We often hear this expressed in similar terms today when proponents of college sports say that participation in sports fosters virtues like teamwork, or school spirit

I think participation in athletics actually can do even more than this.  As an educator, I have noticed that college athletes are often some of my most disciplined students.  In general, they wake up early, take care of their bodies, and get their work done.  There are exceptions, of course, but this has been the case with most of my student-athletes, anyway.  Perhaps this is because I teach philosophy, and the weak students shy away from it because it is a difficult subject with no obvious cash value for their lives.  In any event, my student athletes generally keep up the "student" part of that title fairly well.  Being an athlete can provide numerous benefits for a student.

But this is only a small part of the question, isn't it?  Royce reminds us that the question we are asking is not "Does playing football help the student-athlete?" but "Does football on campuses make us and our communities better?"  In other words, this is not a question about the athlete but about the spectatorsIt is really a question about us.

This question is not a soft, squishy, depends-on-what-you-mean question. Royce has something very specific in mind: does the example of others' athleticism make you more ready to "go and do likewise," or does it merely thrill you?  Or does it even sap your desire and ability to demonstrate similar excellence and loyalty?

Royce says that "if a man has only taught you to cheer him, he has so far only amused you," and if football has only allowed you to "let off steam" without making you "more practically devoted to your own tasks," then it has not made you better but possibly it has even stripped you of your moral strength.

This requires honest self-assessment.  When you watch football, or other athletic contests (like the World Cup) are you becoming a better person, one more able to devote yourself to the tasks that strike you as worthy of your energies?  Are you developing a deeper loyalty to others, and deeper respect for the loyalties of others, or does fandom in fact make those goals more difficult to attain?

Note that this is not a critique of football as a game, nor even of college sports as an institution.  It is a critique of the spectators, and of the effect sports have on us when we watch them.  Are they making us more fit for life together, or are they in fact making us less so?

I will not try to answer that question for now.  Royce's conclusion, in his time, was that the conditions of spectating made football unfavorable "to the best moral development of our youth."  College sports may be great for the players, but not for those who do not play, he said.

It's not obvious to me that things are now as they were then, but it is obvious to me that football has become a greater social force than it was in Royce's time a century ago.  If so, it merits our constant examination.  And if we are honest, and good, we will not be content with vague observations about building teamwork in the players.  After all, the players never play alone, but always with a crowd.  It is not just two teams who play a football game, but those two teams play together with the combined energies of the crowd, and each influences the other.

This should be obvious to us from the simple fact of team selection.  Coaches select players from the general body of students (or potential students) in order to win games for the school, not in order to help those select few become better people.  At many high schools and colleges, coaches are considered teaching faculty.  But there is this important difference between sports teams and academic classes: academic teachers are not permitted to choose which students they will educate, but coaches generally have free rein to eliminate from their tutelage any whom they choose. So while college sports may be similar to classes (inasmuch as they purport to teach) they differ significantly in this respect.

For myself, I am not opposed to college sports.  If anything, I would like to expand them to include all students as players, not merely as spectators.  After all, if there are moral benefits to playing sports, then why would any institution of higher education not want to urge all of its students to gain that benefit by playing?

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